Our tale of desperation and desolation begins:
“Yep. Those are bones. No doubt about it. B..o..n..e..s. I whole-heartedly confer. Anything else?”
“They’re human, Jack-O. That’s a human femur. That’s a human pelvic. Over there’s a hum-”
“Pipe down, Einstein! You want the girls to hear?”
“Jack, I really don’t think this is something we need to keep from them.”
“Clark my man, cool those overheated jets for a sec. This means nothing. Whoever these remains belong to could’ve fallen off a boat two hundred miles from this island. Probably been floating around collecting algae for years.
No reason to panic the wives over it. As far as I’m concerned, we’re still in condition Yellow. Now, what say we collect ’em, stash ’em, and forget ’em? C’mon, we still got time for a game of hoops before chow, whatdaya say?”
“I say we better monitor this closely, Jack. I say we’ve grown a damn site too lazy for our own good. I say…(sighed)...come on then, let’s get these hid so I can kick your ass again before the lunch whistle blows.”
It had been sixteen months since the couples had fled the Carolina coast aboard Jack’s yacht in search of a suitable safe haven from the insanity gripping the free World. The island had floated into site at mid-afternoon of day ninety-one of what Jack had referred to as ‘Atlantic Seaboard Tour 2010’, a two-mile long, mile and a half wide dune with little in edible vegetation but an ample supply of fresh water and just enough shade to suffice. Jack and Clark had been best friends since junior high. Each had served as the other’s best man at separate weddings. Each served as godfather’s to the others children. Now both nearing their forty-fifth birthdays, neither could have envisioned such a surreal, dreamlike existence. Men of substantial wealth and stature (Jack a highly respected psychologist and Clark the vice-president of a nationwide freight company), the simple loss of control within their daily lives had easily been the most difficult and frightening aspect of the entire ordeal.
It had hardly been a full week from the time initial reports of the plague had streaked across TV screens to the time they’d organized a plan to escape to parts unknown. Casting off around midnight of day eight, they’d watched in horror as CNN had reported World-wide casualties at nearly three-hundred million and climbing. On day three of trolling the North Atlantic for an island safe haven, that number had nearly doubled. By day six, around the time they’d attempted to dock on an uncharted island in the Bahamas, all radio and TV transmissions had ceased.
The bodies of the diseased had littered the Bahamian islands like bug-husks following a mass pesticide spraying, after which Jack had turned the yacht due north once again, where they eventually discovered an uncharted island approximately sixty miles south of Bermuda. The fifty-foot Dyna Motor Yacht, christened the “Jack-A-Roo’ had been well-stocked upon departing the Carolina’s, and subsequent supply runs into the as-of-yet disease free Cayman islands had seen three of the six staterooms packed with canned foods, bottled water and equal amounts over-the-counter and prescription medication.
“Grub is served, you two!” Jessica yelled through cupped hands as Sonya sets the table behind her.
“On our way, Mon Capitan!” Jack retorted, whirling about just as Clark tossed in a six-foot hook shot that essentially ended the contest.
“Let’s see now,’ Clark spewed gleefully, wiping the fop sweat from his tanned forehead with a white rag, ‘That makes the official count six-oh-seven for me…and three for you.”
“Keep talking, smart ass. Don’t think for a minute I’m not capable of putting together a six-hundred game winning streak. Just a matter of time, pal, and time is the one thing we have an ample supply of.”
“Uh-huh. You, my good doctor, are a genuine glutton for punishment.”
The men departed the matted down sand of their makeshift basketball court, which was shaded in coconut and juniper trees, and headed for home base, all thoughts of beached bones having vanished from their collective subconscious as if they’d never existed.
Up ahead, Jack’s ten year old son, Chad, was playing a casual game of catch with Clark’s six-year old daughter Christie, who managed to mishandle even the gentlest of tosses.
“Kid has her father’s hands,’ Jack quipped, ‘mitts of stone.”
As is the daily ritual, lunch was consumed between peacefully swaying palms on a meticulously constructed picnic table Jack had built on only their fourth day on the island. Jessica, or ’Jessie’, as was her nickname, jokingly referred to her husband of fourteen years as ’Doctor Jack Villa’ for his prowess with hand and electrical tools. Jack had taken no chances as they’d departed the marina, packing one of the yacht’s below-deck storage rooms with a plethora of such devices. All remaining space had been earmarked for food, water, and first-aid supplies, an initial six-month supply that had been stretched out to seven before an emergency run back to the mainland was deemed necessary.
“How many packs we have left, son?” Jack asked Chad, who sat atop a large boulder, placing a fresh set of batteries into his I-Pod.
“A whole bunch, dad. At least a dozen of the six packs.”
“Even so, limit it to two hours a day like we talked about.”
“Yes, sir,” the boy replied, shooting his father a mock salute before sprinting towards the beach, where his mother sat beneath an umbrella stand as waves cascaded over her bare feet. After a moment, Jack reached over and retrieved two chilled bottles of beer from a nearby cooler before joining his family for an afternoon of tranquil frolic.
Meanwhile, inside the largest of two man-made huts, constructed solely of palm leaves and bamboo poles, Clark playfully nibbled at his wife’s neck after a brief but intense bout of lovemaking.
“Beast,’ Sonya chided with a barely concealed grin, reaching around to gently slap his bare right shoulder, which is tanned golden brown, ‘one of these days your daughter is going to walk right in on us. What then? Going to be a little late for the ‘facts of life’ speech then, big boy.”
Dwarfing his Chinese-born bride of twelve years by a foot in height and nearly seventy pounds in body weight, Clark clasped an arm around her slim waist and hoisted her airborne with minimal effort.
“I’ll just tell her it’s all mama’s fault for being so damned irresistible.”
“I’m serious, Clark. Didn’t you tell Jack to attach a lock of some kind?”
“I’ll remind him already,’ he replied in mock annoyance, ‘I’m busy now, woman! A man has to have his priorities.”
She slid gracefully into his arms and they kissed deeply; passionately.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again,’ he said as they fell back onto the bed and locked eyes, ‘as far as this boy is concerned, paradise is found.”
As dusk broke, the families took up their usual positions on what Clark had long since dubbed ‘The Overlook’, stretched out in lawn chairs and sipping cool beverages as the sun gradually sank beyond the distant horizon. A light, soothing breeze was evident as the night set in, though the seas remained steady and calm.
A short time later, they trudged slowly back to camp. Soon, the children were fast asleep inside their individual huts as the adults picked sides for their nightly bridge tournament. As midnight approached, they all slept deeply and without concern for whatever horrors still faced the outside world. Without a doubt, they had found their safe haven, and had no plans, immediate or otherwise, to tread the potentially treacherous waters beyond its serene perimeters.
“What are they pointing at?” Jack shrieked, huffing between words as he and Clark sprinted up the spongy dune in bare feet.
It was barely six AM, and each had been jarred from a deep slumber by the high-pitched wails of their children.
By the time they reached the top of the hill, where Chad and Christie stood pointing out into the open sea like posed statues, each felt the air in their lungs grow frigid even as their limbs went numb.
“Oh god….oh my g-god..” Clark whimpered through trembling lips while reaching down to scoop his daughter into his arms.
“Shit…shit, is that really a….what I think it…shiiiit,” Jack replied in shock-shelled awe, unconsciously gripping his young son’s shoulders and turning him towards camp.
“Let’s grab the girls and get the hell outta here, Jack!” Clark bellowed, having already took off towards camp with Christine bouncing wildly in his grip.
Jack nodded without reply, having hoisted young Chad across his shoulder like a GI duffel bag. Fueled by equal portions of adrenaline and stark fear, each man made it back to base camp in roughly half the time it had initially taken them to reach the children.
“Stop it, Jack! Just…stop it! Tell me why we’re doing this! TELL ME!”
“Because, Jes, the island isn’t….wasn’t safe anymore.”
“Wasn’t safe from…what? Why won’t you tell us?” Jessica pleaded, using her slim form to block the stairway leading to below deck. Holding a five-gallon water jug in each arm, Jack frantically scanned the surrounding beach for movement.
“We’ll…I’ll fill you in as soon as we’re launched, Jes, I promise. Now, get out of my way so I can stow these water jugs.”
“Jack, I’m not moving until you-..”
“Damn it, woman…MOVE!” he bellowed angrily as frothy spittle flew from his lips. Stuttering incoherently, Jessie quickly turned and watched her husband rush by.
“You’ll understand. It was all for you,’ he whispered a few moments later, hugging her close as they both ascended topside, ‘I…I pray you’ll…understand.”
The yacht sailed away from the eastern edge of the island less than twelve full minutes following the mysterious ‘viewing’ at the opposite side, sailing into a thin, grayish fog that only seemed to grow thicker and increasingly ominous the farther they traveled.
“Where to, doc?” Clark inquired barely five minutes out, failing miserably in his attempt to inject much-needed levity.
“Anywhere but there, old buddy,” Jack responded in a weary, bone-tired rasp, gripping the wheel as if they were treading swirling, stormy seas instead of the dead calmness that prevailed.
“The girls are…really scared, Jack-O. I heard Sonya grilling Chrissy about what they saw.”
“Damned strange. Chrissy just shrugged and clamed up, like she was purposely avoiding the subject or had…somehow completely forgotten it.”
Jack gave the console a quick once-over before turning to his best friend and confidant of over thirty years, his face drawn and as colorless as the cloud of fog swallowing them whole from all sides.
“It’s better that way, Clark. Believe me. Its better she…forgets.”
“What?” Clark replied with an open-mouthed glare, cocking his head in comical confusion.
Lowering his head as if deeply shamed, Jack’s entire frame seemed to shrink in utter fatigue.
“Go down below and get the wives, Clark. Bring ‘em up here. I’ve…got something to tell them. Something to tell…you all.”
“My lord, Jack, I can’t see anything in…in this.”
“We’re pretty well…flying blind, Jess. It’ll break soon, right Jack-O?”
“Eventually,’ Jack replied stoically, peering out with unblinking eyes into the milky murk as if visualizing a distant object the others were unable to detect, ‘It’ll fade soon…transform…mutate. Soon, we’ll all see things much, much clearer.”
“Uh…yeah, great Rod Serling impersonation there, um, Jack-O,’ Clark stammered, pulling Sonja close and essentially pinning her to his side, ‘…now cut the incoherent bullshit and tell us this deep, dark secret that only you seem privy to.”
Lowering his chin, Jack turned slowly before locking eyes with his childhood friend.
Clark audibly gasped, feeling Sonya hug him ever tighter. The shadows engulfing the dimly lit bridge seemed to have aged Jack a full decade, his complexion shockingly pale.
“You saw it too, buddy-boy,’ he replied curtly, peering straight ahead through unblinking eyes, ‘you saw what…what I saw. What..the children saw. "
“Damn it, Clark…what is he saying?" Sonya bellowed, struggling to pull free from her husband’s steely grip, ‘what is this about? What did the children see?”
Jessica soon joined her on opposite sides from the men.
“I…we…it w-was offshore, just past those j-jagged rocks on overlook…overlook hill,” Clark stammered, his voice growing increasingly shrill, ‘I…I can’t…it was like a d-dream…”
“I’ll take it from here, old buddy,’ Jack interrupted calmly, allowing the wheel to swing loosely as he turned to face them, ‘Its only fair. What you and the children witnessed only makes sense to me anyway.”
“My god, Jack, would you please stop talking in riddles! Why did you force us to leave the island? I thought we...we all agreed it was the ...a safe place...at least for now.”
Lowering his gaze to the bridge’s slickly waxed surface, Jack’s voice seemed strangely hollow and without emotion.
“A pipe dream, my dear, sweet Jess. Alas, like all such illusions, there has to be an awakening…however rude…however…cruel.
Do…any of you recall when we landed on one of the Berry islands to replenish the water supply?”
Clark shrugged knowingly.
“Sure, that was only about three weeks after we’d left port in Myrtle Beach.”
“That’s right,’ Sonya added between intense sessions of fingernail gnawing, ‘we were down to three or four gallon jugs.”
“What about it, Jack?’ Jess inquired angrily while staring past her husband and into the dense clouds beyond, ‘Jesus, don’t do this. Just cut to the blessed chase.”
“If you’ll recall, Chad wondered off as we’d entered that first tourist villa.”
The trio instantly displayed similar expressions of pained bewilderment.
Clark: “Chad? I don’t…”
Sonya: “Wondered off…where? I can’t remember…”
Jessica: “Jack honey, are you…okay? I mean, you really don’t look well, and what…what you’re saying just doesn’t make sense.”
“We split up and eventually found him-I found him- talking to an old man sitting outside a closed down strip club. Before I could get to them, the old man had reached over and stroked Chad’s head with the back of his hand. A hand encrusted in sores. Red flaming…leaking…sores.”
Clark: “When the hell did this happen?”
Sonya: “Jack, you must’ve dreamed this...”
Jessica: “Strange. I…recall reaching the Berry islands but…nothing after we’d docked…”
Spinning about to retake the wheel, Jack ignored the comments and continued to drone away in the same eerie, dry monotone. As his rambling monologue proceeded, he gradually turned his head away from them until only the back of his sweat moistened skull was visible.
“If I had done what…what we had all vowed to do in such a situation, things could’ve been different. But he was…he’s my son, damn it! I couldn’t just…abandon him…leave him there to rot on that damnable island with the rest...”
Clark: “Jack…buddy…maybe you need to let me take the wheel…”
Sonya: “Maybe he hit his head or something…”
Jessica: “Lord…lord, look at his…his hands!”
Gripping the wheel in a double-fisted vise, the flesh of each hand seemed to glow and pulsate, resembling some alien, translucent fiber.
“I…know I shouldn’t have brought him back aboard. I…I knew better. I’d just hoped…prayed that…he hadn’t contracted…”
Clark (backing slowly away with his hands held up in a blocking pose): “Oh god…oh dear god…he’s….”
Wild-eyed with fear, Sonya sprinted to her husband’s side, barely avoiding sliding to her knees in the process.
“By the time we…passed Freeport, we were all…infected…full blown. The children were…I mean, they fought it tooth and nail. A couple of…real troopers…but, their immune systems were….so weak…”
Clark: “You’re…crazy, man! If…I mean…if that's...if that's true ...we’d…all be…”
Sonya: “Clark, we’ve got to…hop on the inflatable and g-get out…get out now before he…gives it to us…”
Jessica (covering her ears and screeching): “Jack, stop it! Just STOP IT!”
They all grew silent in unison as the distinct sound of pattering feet originated from below deck.
At the same time, the fog bank seemed to dissipate dramatically as dawn’s early light cracked the eastern horizon.
“You see…it wasn’t until we reached Bermuda….the triangle that I…woke to find us in our…present states. I’d often found…group hypnosis a useful tool to…alter one’s perception of reality. Wasn’t that difficult really…just a matter of utilizing my own personal vision of paradise. Lord knows it wasn't always easy keeping...keeping all of you under. Why, just yesterday Clark broke the field for just a few moments and found...those damn bones littering the beach. I...for a moment I truly thought...the jig was finally up. Turned out to be a moot point really..."
The pattering grew louder just as a pair of tiny yet distinct shadows appeared on the narrow stairwell leading to the bridge-while only patches of smog remained as the yacht sailed rapidly towards a yet unidentifiable beachhead.
“Think about it, people...what could be better, after all, in the midst of such worldwide chaos and death, than to share a peaceful, tropical isle with one’s best friends? Don't hate me for it. I did it...for all of us.
Not…sure why it has…had to end this way…damned shame, really…”
The children dashed up and forward like twin torpedoes, bounding ahead in a blur until they each joined Jack at the wheel and began playfully tugging at its grooved handle.
“Now, now children…leave the wheel be. Spinning it about won’t…cannot change our destination. I’m afraid…nothing can or…ever will…”
Whirling about as one, the youngsters smiled broadly, their childish giggles weirdly muffled, as if originating from a far distance. Jack reached down with shrunken, skeletal hands and patted each of their equally gaunt, hairless skulls.
A garbling yelp escaped the back of Sonya’s throat as she fell to one knee before collapsing in a spasm-racked heap.
Clark joined her mere seconds later, clutching his throat as if in the throngs of a particularly deadly chemical reaction.
Jessica lay back and flailed about like a banked fish, her breathing strained and shallow as her eyes lolled about like rolled marbles.
“Look kids….Jess….we’re home…..” Jack exclaimed cheerily, his hollowed eye sockets growing wide with grade-school glee as the tiny island swam into view, its desolate, barren landscape illuminated by the early morning sun glistening off of eerily calm seas.
As the yacht grew ever nearer, its long-deceased crew stood at the side rails and soon spotted the images of two children standing atop an oval-shaped sand dune. Seconds later, the children, a boy of perhaps ten and a girl a bit younger, were joined by two adult men. The men quickly scooped up the children dashed away in a mad sprint, as if being chased by some potentially dangerous, unseen enemy.
“Ah, yes…’ Jack whispered in a dreary, melancholy voice, ‘we are definitely home…once again…”
And the voyage of the eternally damned would repeat verbatim as minutes turned into hours and hours to days….days to years and years to decades….decades to centuries and centuries to infinity…sailing atop the haunted waters surrounding Delusion Island.